Iron Maiden are in the top ten most influential metal bands of all time. Where would the big four of thrash be without the English titans? How could melodic death metal exist with them? Is there a word more poignant than legendary to describe their legacy?
But Steve Harris and the boys are also the senior citizens of the genre, and once you get way past forty, you can make either lift muzak or go in a prog direction. Iron Maiden are, thankfully, taking the thoughtful, meandering path worn by Fear Inoculum: ‘Senjutsu’ could even belong on the Tool record – until Bruce’s soaring chorus marks it firmly as a Maiden song. There has been a progressive edge to Iron Maiden for years, and it suits them. The taiko-inspired drums are full, round and pounding, underpinned by a meaty, clacky bass. Bruce’s voice is raw but resolute; the guitars are bright and colourful.
Of course, your fingers will be squirming and your mouth turning dry, the longer they make you wait for their iconic gallop. ‘Stratego’ charges in like only a Maiden song can – anthemic wails and calls-to-arms. Unlike many tracks here, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s so Iron Maiden, that Eddie, himself, could have written it, reminiscent of (but not quite like) ‘Powerslave’. As the first single, ‘The Writing on the Wall’ is all Western epic, reined in by subtle tempo shifts and a distinctly un-Maiden-like American sound. Thematically based on the biblical Belshazzar’s Feast, guitar solos whirl like tumbleweed across the open plain, as imposing as the Grand Canyon. The video is as much of a visual treat for long-time fans, just as ‘Blackstar’ was for David Bowie’s.
At first, ‘Lost in a Lost World’ is a Pink Floyd-style mournful ballad with echoing, distant vocals, until about a third of the way through, staccato riffs chug in and blend the Maiden of ‘Judgement of Heaven’ with hints of ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. ‘The Time Machine’, penned by Janick Gers, stirs and inspires. The breakdown in the last half is unexpected and playful, jarring in just the right way. So far, so good.
Act two begins with ‘Darkest Hour’, again implying Maiden have been listening to The Wall on repeat. Like ‘Hey You’ or ‘Comfortably Numb’, you don’t need the Churchill-inspired lyrics to find the triumph in the despair. On Maiden’s part, they blend elements of ‘Wasting Love’ with ‘Coming Home’ before a gorgeous Gilmour-ish solo caresses the second half, all pitch-bent strings and ticklish wheedles.
We all know that prog tendencies bring a higher risk of forgetting about the listener. Black Sabbath stayed on the right side of bedazzlement with their 1975 classic, Sabotage, but Metallica’s …And Justice for All stretched the elastic too far when they went prog in 1988. The last three songs here are over ten minutes long, and this is Senjutsu’s weakness: it’s bloated. It needs a firmer producer or a less stubborn band. ‘Death of the Celts’ is a wonderful echo of ‘The Clansman’, albeit a minute or two too long. ‘Parchment’ is stunning (almost doom-like in its relentless bass-driven rhythms – trudgy in the right way, like ‘The Book of Souls’), but it needs to be about four minutes shorter: a song this good shouldn’t bore. ‘Hell on Earth’ has another wistful build to a bounding gallop. It’s beautiful, splendid and so very long.
At the end, you’ll feel relief that they’ve delivered another record and added to their illustrious back catalogue rather than tarnish it. If this turns out to be their last album, Senjutsu is neither whimper nor bang, but a satisfying curtain call. One can only imagine how much revenue the boys will generate in ticket sales when they embark on their world tour, but it’ll be an eight-figure sum.
Release Date: 03/09/2021
Record Label: Warner Music Group
Standout tracks: Senjutsu, The Time Machine, Darkest Hour
Suggested Further Listening: Tool – Fear Inoculum (2019), Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979), Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000)